Dillon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Dillon Surname Meaning

Dillon is a surname in Ireland of Norman or Irish origins. In Leinster Dillon derived from the Norman family of de Leon (meaning either “of Lyon” or “of the lion”). There is an old Irish saying: “All the Dillons descended from Henry de Leon.”

But the Dillon name also came from the anglicization of the Irish O’Duilleain (from Dalian meaning “little blind one”) in Munster and Connacht.

Dillon Surname Resources on The Internet

Dillon Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (West Meath)
  • to France, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Ireland.  The first person to come to Ireland with the Dillon name was Sir Henry de Leon, from Brittany in France. He had come in 1185, immediately after the Anglo-Norman invasion, to act as secretary to Prince John and was awarded large tracts of land.

As the de Leon family multiplied and spread out over the country, it began being called by its Gaelic form O’Duilleain, which over time became the anglicized Dillon.

The base for these Dillons was Westmeath where they had built Portlick castle. In fact they owned so much land there that Westmeath was popularly known as Dillon’s country. The two main Dillon branches, ennobled in the 17th century, were:

  • the Viscount Dillons who fled to France after the Jacobite defeat in 1691 and thus lost their Irish estates.
  • and the Earls of Roscommon. In addition, the Dillons of Drumreany were to be found at Dillon’s Grove, Roscommon in the 18th century.

The Dillon name was and continues to be common in Meath, Westmeath and Roscommon.

France. The Dillons in exile from Ireland made their mark in France. Sometimes called “the Irish Dillons,” they mixed in the highest levels of French society.

Sir James Dillon had fled the Cromwellians and in 1653 he raised the famous Regiment of Dillon. It was to be led by a Dillon for over a hundred years.  Son Arthur, who fled Ireland after the Jacobite defeat in 1691, served in the French army; as did grandson James who commanded the Irish Brigade which helped defeat the English at Fontenoy in 1745.

Theobald Count Dillon became a Field Marshall of France and fought with Washington in the American War of Independence. When fighting the Austrians in 1792, he was massacred by his own troops in a tragic misunderstanding. He lies with Napoleon in the Pantheon.  Arthur Dillon also fought in the American War of Independence. But he was accused of being a Royalist and was guillotined during the French Revolution.

From Dublin in 1744, from the Kilcornan branch of the family, came the merchant Robert Dillon and his brother Thomas. They purchased the large Terrefort estate in Blanquefort, Bordeaux from which later came the Chateau Dillon wines. Robert died in 1764; but his sons carried on the family name in Bordeaux. One, nicknamed “le beau Dillon,” was a particular favorite of Marie Antoinette.

America. Dillons made it to America.  Possibly the first was Luke Dillon, a Quaker from county Armagh who arrived in Nantucket in 1710. These Dillons were to be found later in Hopewell, Virginia.

Meanwhile Peter Dillon and Mary Veghte of Somerset county, New Jersey date from the Revolutionary War period. Other Dillons fought in this war on the French side.

Timothy Dillon also fought in the Revolutionary War and later eked out a living as a farmer in upstate New York, in what was then Montgomery county:

  • his son Sidney started work as a water boy for one of America’s earliest railroads and rose to be President of the Union Pacific.
  • another branch of this family moved west to Iowa in 1838. John Forrest Dillon became prominent there as a judge.

Maurice Dillon came to Rhode Island from Ireland in the 1850’s, at the time of the potato famine.  He was a tailor by trade.  Later Dillons made their home in New York.  A descendant is the actor Matt Dillon.

Canada. Edward Dillon came to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia with his parents from Ireland in 1787. At the age of 12, some ten years after his arrival, he was rendered an orphan when the rest of his family bar one sister was slaughtered by Indians.  

Edward Dillon was an Indian captive for about five years and was then set free by an European trader who noticed Edward trying to show a squaw how to compass a box. This trader convinced his owner to exchange him for ammunition and blankets.”  

Edward married and settled down at Main-a-dieu.

Australia.  A Dillon family from Tipperary came to Melbourne in 1849. That year John Dillon acquired the Horse and Jockey Inn at Chiltern some 200 miles north of Melbourne. The inn remained in Dillon hands until 1920.

Another John Dillon family from Tipperary came to the Nelson area in New Zealand in 1870 and then migrated to Melbourne in the 1890’s.

New Zealand.  Constantine Dillon, a younger son of the Viscount Dillons at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, sailed for New Zealand with his family in 1842. He acquired land to farm in Marlborough’s Waihopai valley.

In 1851, on his ninth wedding anniversary, he wrote:  “May the next nine years of our lives, if we should be spared as long, be as productive of joy and comfort to me as the last nine, and may God give me to be a stay and comfort to her whom above all other created beings, I loved and adore.

However, two years later he drowned while crossing a river on his property. Heartbroken, his wife Fanny and their children returned to Oxfordshire. But some of the family later returned and Dillons have continued to live and farm on this land.

Dillon Surname Miscellany

Portlick Castle in Westmeath.  The Norman family of De Lion (later Dillon) built Portlick Castle on the shores of Lough Ree in 1185.  During their heyday the family also had castles at Ballynacliffy, Littleton, and Ballynakill.  But Portlick was to be their base and stronghold for their period of supremacy of almost five hundred years.  The original building was remodeled sometime in the 16th century.

The Dillon family, however, were devout Catholics who fought in the 1641 Irish rebellion and they were banished to Connacht by Cromwell. After the Restoration in 1663, Thomas Viscount Dillon, the leader of the Mayo branch of the family, was able to recover the castle.

But his successor Theobald Dillon was killed at the battle of Aughrim and the family’s support for King James meant that, after his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, many of them fled to Europe with the Wild Geese.  Garret Dillon was the last Dillon occupier.  In 1696 Portlick castle passed into other hands.

Recently, the castle and period extensions have all been extensively renovated to a very high standard. Portlick castle is in fact the only medieval castle in Ireland which has been used perpetually as a residence.

The Dillons of Roscommon.  The Dillon family which had settled in NW Roscommon and county Mayo were given the title of Earl of Roscommon in 1622.  Possibly the most famous of the family was the 4th Earl, Wentworth Dillon, who was a noted poet.

When Patrick the 11th Earl died in 1816 there was a problem with the succession as he died without male heir.  From another Dillon line came Michael Dillon, a captain in the Dublin militia who had died at the Battle of Ross in 1798.  It took his son Michael James Robert Dillon over ten years to convince the House of Lords that he was entitled to the earldom.  He was, however, the last Earl of Roscommon and when he died in 1850 the title became extinct.

Arthur Dillon and His Daughter Lucie at the Time of the French Revolution.  Arthur Dillon, a general in the French army, commanded the Dillon Regiment – which had been led by a Dillon for over a hundred years.

In 1777 he embarked for America with 1,400 men of his regiment, including four Dillon officers, to fight for France in the American War of Independence.  However, his downfall came during the French Revolution when he was accused of being a Royalist and followed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the guillotine.

His daughter Lucie, then married and known as Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin, almost suffered the same fate. But she and her husband were able to escape to America.  They later returned to France when things had begun to settle down. Her memoirs make fascinating reading (she has been called the chronicler of her age).  They were reassembled in Caroline Moorehead’s 2009 book Dancing to the Precipice.

Le Beau Dillon.  Edward Dillon, nicknamed “le beau Dillon,” was a particular favorite of Marie Antoinette.  He acted out in many of the games at the Trianon, where he played the “keeper” to Marie Antionette’s “farmer.”  The Comtesse de Boigne recalled the following incident in her memoirs:

“Edward Dillon was beautiful, fat, and fashionable.

One day he performed in front of the Queen the figures of a quadrille which was going to be danced at the ball.  Suddenly he turned pale and fainted. He was placed on a sofa and the Queen had the impudence to place her hand on her heart to feel if it was beating.

Edward revived and turned to her.  He apologized for his indisposition and said that, because of a wound incurred during the taking of Grenada, these weaknesses often came on him, especially when he was fasting.  The Queen gave him a broth and the courtiers, jealous of this little success, made out that he had got the better of her.”

Dillon, unlike Marie Antoinette, kept his head during the French Revolution.   He later served in diplomatic missions abroad. The Prussian King Frederick William III fell deeply in love with his daughter Georgina while Dillon was on diplomatic service in Dresden.

Luke Dillon in America.  Luke Dillon and his wife Susannah were Quakers and were from county Armagh in Ireland.  Luke had come from a poor family and Susannah from a well-to-do family.  They eloped in 1710 and set off for America.

They went first to the Quaker colony on Nantucket island off Massachusetts and then, in 1714, moved to Bucks county, Pennsylvania.

Luke died three years later.  A descendant, Alfred Dillon, told the following story. In the winter of 1717, Luke spent an evening at the local tavern, got drunk and rode home in a driving snowstorm.  On the way he fell from his horse and rolled into a ditch.  His body was not discovered until a thaw later in the winter.  His last child was born after his death and was named for him.

Dillons from Ireland to America.  James and Ellen Dillon led wandering lives.  Maybe they had not been married back in Tipperary. Family tradition has it that James Dillon was an employee of the Going family, perhaps as a gardener or handyman, when Ellen had become pregnant.  In any case they left their baby daughter behind with the Goings when they decided to emigrate to Nova Scotia in 1842.

James and Ellen later moved to Massachusetts when, at some time in the mid-1850’s they and their baby daughter were reunited.  But this reunion proved short-lived.  The daughter, having been given some money by her father, used it to buy a train ticket and ran way to New York.

After Massachusetts, the Dillons headed west and lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kansas.  James died in Smith county, Kansas.  Ellen went onto Washington on the West Coast after James’ death and died in Yakima.

Reader Feedback – Dillons in Ecuador.  I am a great grandson of Francis Dillon who came to Ecuador as an army officer for the King of Spain and died in Ecuador in 1807.  He was born in Cork Ireland according to his will.  I am interested in finding out my roots in Cork.

Gonzalo Dillon (transcon@transdelpacifico.com)

Dillon Names

  • Sir Henry de Leon was the forebear of the Norman Dillons in Ireland.
  • Sir James Dillon fled Cromwell for France and was the first of the Dillon French line.
  • John Dillon was an Irish Home Rule activist and the last leader of the Irish parliamentary party before independence.
  • Sidney Dillon was an American railroad executive, President of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1874 to 1884.
  • Clarence Dillon, born Clarence Lapowski, was an American financier who grew rich through his Wall Street company Dillon, Read and Co.
  • Matt Dillon is a popular American actor.

Dillon Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Dillon and Like Surnames

The English came to Ireland as early as 1170 with Strongbow’s invasion.  The invaders – largely Anglo-Norman – stayed and many became large landowners and public officials.

Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – le Gras to Grace, de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance.  They became more Irish, often Catholic.

When the English came again, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sided with the English and were rewarded.  But others resisted and had lands confiscated.

Here are some of these Anglo-Irish surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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